Boomers Knew Signs of the Times

It occurred to Mister Boomer that our generation knew and employed hand gestures — signs of the times, if you will — that became identified with our generation. Some we inherited from previous generations and carried on the tradition, while others we adapted and made our own.

The symbol for “something is not smelling right” is a thumb and index finger grasping one’s nose. A gesture often used by children, it could under those circumstances relate to personal proximity to a gaseous presence, often emanating from a sibling. When performed behind the back of the alleged offender, often an adult, it was a “man, this stinks” statement to surrounding siblings or classroom pals.
In later years, it was used to describe the stench of polluted air. Occasionally it was used as a metaphor to protest government action that, to the protester, meant “something stinks here.”

Peace Sign
Perhaps the hand gesture that is most often identified with the Baby Boomer generation, this sign of the times consisted of lifting the first two fingers of a hand to form a “V.” Similar to a Boy Scout oath-taking hand gesture, it differed in the separation of the fingers.
Most people know that Winston Churchill utilized the gesture as a rallying symbol to mean “V for Victory” during the second World War. Yet there is evidence of its use as a symbol of victory as far back as the 1400s. Two boomer-era presidents — Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon — were known to raise both arms fully extended in a “V for Victory” stance in political rallies.
Boomers adapted it as a sign of peace during protests of the Vietnam War, a symbol simply stating, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” It became identified with pacifists and hippies, but survived and spread beyond the counter culture.

Roll Down Your Window
Boomers know the sign to ask the person in the next car to roll down their window is a hand grasping an invisible handle that is then rotated repeatedly. It was an indication of the manual method most people were required to perform to raise or lower a window inside a car.
Most often used at stoplights, it could be utilized to ask for directions, or in the case of boomers, more often to talk to members of the opposite sex. It might also be used to invite the other driver to race when the light changed.

Boomers recall Mike Myers immortalizing the gesture in the 1992 movie, Wayne’s World. When his character and his cohort Garth (Dana Carvey) pull alongside a Rolls Royce at a stoplight, he does the hand gesture to ask the other car’s occupant if he has any Grey Poupon — a spoof of a popular TV commercial of that time.

Check, Please
Everyone knows a hand wave in a restaurant is meant to gain the attention of a server, most often to indicate that the meal is complete and the bill is requested. It can be a simple raised hand and arm like a student in a classroom, or a hand waving. It is often seen as a hand holding an unseen pen and writing in the air.
This hand gesture did not start with Baby Boomers, but Mister B is including it here because the concept of middle class families enjoying fine dining was mostly unknown in the early part of the Baby Boom. As the middle class grew in the 1950s and ’60s, it has been Mister B’s anecdotal experience that families went to restaurants mainly on special occasions. Boomers would see their fathers perform the gesture at the end of a Mother’s Day meal, and, a few years later when going to a restaurant became an option for dating, employed the hand sign themselves.

Middle Finger Salute
Another symbol that has a long history around the globe, boomers embraced this insult gesture as their own. There was no greater way to express rebellion against the Establishment than to perform the obscene gesture of raising a middle finger, whether that was aimed at the grown-ups from previous generation, at teachers or government.
By the 1970s, the gesture had been overused for all sorts of mundane occasions, diluting the earlier insult and shock factor that drew a separation line between generations.

How about you, boomers? Do you recall these or other hand gestures that you think of as signs of our time?

Boomers Gave the Peace Sign More Than a Chance

One of the most recognizable symbols of 1960s Baby Boomers was the peace sign. It was a circle divided vertically in half, with each side having an angled division forming an inverted “v” about a third of the way up from the bottom. Many people, however — including boomers — may not know the origins of this ubiquitous symbol of our Generation.

The peace sign, as we call it, didn’t start out as a symbol for peace at all, but rather, a symbol for nuclear disarmament. After World War II, the Soviet Union set about building their own nuclear weapon, and was successful in 1949. The United Kingdom became the third country possessing nuclear weaponry in 1952, while France jumped in as the fourth country to possess nuclear capabilities in 1960 and China became the fifth country in 1964. As each country wanted their own nuclear device, in the thinking that that would act as a deterrent against another country’s aggression, each country acquired more, prompting the other countries to increase their stockpile. This rapid rise of nuclear stockpiles — especially between the U.S. and Soviet Union — lead to the Arms Race.

This world-wide activity was not universally accepted by the masses in each country, so a grass-roots protest movement began to rise to remind people of the horrors inflicted with the use of the weapons against Japan. In England, a group called the Direct Action Committee, in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament planned a protest march in April of 1958 from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. One member of the group, Gerald Holtom, was an artist and designer who thought that a common symbol worn by the marchers would help unify the movement. He drew the now famous symbol, based on the “n” and “d” of semaphore flag signaling, grabbing the initials from the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” In this messaging system, the sender positions two flags to indicate letters. The letter “n” is formed by holding both flags downward at an angle. The positioning for the letter “d” is one flag straight up, and the other straight down. Combine the semaphore “n” and “d” and you have the “peace” symbol. Holtom drew a circle around it to balance the design. Eric Austen took Holtom’s drawing and made ceramic badges for the group to wear. These circular buttons were composed of a white glazed background with the nuclear disarmament symbol painted in black glaze. A thin black circle surrounded the edge of the button. Holtom’s original design now resides in the Peace Museum in Bradford, England.

original peace symbol with variations
The first drawing by Gerald Holtom (as pictured by Mister B in the top left) had little flares capping the ends of each line, and a thinner circle encompassing the design. Once it was adapted in the U.S. all types of variations were born, from simple straight lines within a same-thickness circle to oval-shaped symbols made into pendants, and elaborate colorations in stickers and buttons.

So how did this nuclear disarmament symbol become the symbol of the American anti-war movement? In 1958 an American pacifist named Albert Bigelow — himself a World War II Navy captain — sailed his boat the Golden Rule in the vicinity of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands, with the symbol on his sail. The U.S. Coast Guard intervened and he was briefly jailed.

In 1960, a student form the University of Chicago named Philip Altbach was in England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU). On his return to the U.S., he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol for their own purposes since it had not been trademarked or patented. They did so by producing buttons to sell as a fundraising effort for their cause. Between 1960 and 1964, the group sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses across the country. As TV coverage of protests rose, the symbol became synonymous with demonstrators who wore the buttons and drew the symbol on banners. It had made the transition from “nuclear disarmament” to a more widespread anti-war sentiment, which then made its way back to Europe and rest of the world.

Mister Boomer knew back then that the symbol we called a “peace sign” was actually intended for nuclear disarmament. He used to remark how the symbol looked like a missile on a launch pad. He did not know the details of the story, though, until now!

What was your connection to the peace sign, boomers? Did you buy a button, wear it on a t-shirt or around your neck as a pendant?